This morning, Adam Sah, Founder & CEO of Buyer’s Best Friend, Sean Knapp, EVP & Chief Product Officer of Ooyala, and Wayne Chan, VP of Engineering at Vungle joined Mike on stage for a Fireside Chat titled “Managing Growth: Infrastructure & People”. There were a number of great takeaways for any heads of engineering trying to manage intense growth, but “fail fast” seemed to be the main theme. I’ll share some of my favorite discussion topics below.
The consensus seemed to agree, that managers afraid of acting quickly with regards to team changes are going to do more harm than good in the long run. Sean stated that he was more willing to act quickly once his headcount was 100, but believed he should have done it earlier.
Developing discipline and honing focus are keys to success.
In Adam’s current industry – food – there is a ton of demand. Everyone on the planet needs food and there a lot of different startup ideas involving the distribution of food. The challenge for his team was figuring out what to focus on, what to go after, and then to prioritize what they built. If they are heading down one road and see something isn’t working, Adam is always quick to change gears. If something is working, figure out why and make sure you don’t relax because you need to stay on top of it.
What’s the worst tool you’ve used in a hyper-growth period?
Adam’s straightforward answer here was the decision to use his home to operate majority of his current company. Buyer’s Best Friend has been completely bootstrapped to date and Adam thought he had come up with a great way to save money, but quickly realized that there is good reason businesses take on traditional office space in a hyper-growth period. From receiving packages at inconvenient times to re-wiring your entire home to handle servers, the list goes on. Wayne and Sean put less surprising but helpful answers on the table: building on AWS isn’t ideal for hyper-growth because it’s too tough to move from that to your own hardware, and that if you’re using one solution when the majority of engineers are using another, you’re probably going to run into some road blocks.
As your team starts to scale. how do you manage with certain employees excelling while others are starting to lag behind?
There’s a big difference between being liked and being respected, and many early-stage managers don’t seem to get this. Managers have to be ready to let under-performers go. Performance plans or demotions are totally acceptable if an employee starts to fall behind. Adam doesn’t really think that there is a talent shortage. He believes that if you have a successful startup in an interesting space, than people are going to want to work for you. The problem is not finding people to hire, the problem is having the capital to hire the people you really want. If someone you’ve hired is falling behind, it’s your job to find the best way to transition that person out of your company and free up that capital to hire someone who can do that specific job better.
How do you deal with the technical debt of killing off features?
Adam had previously worked at Google Gadgets where they once did 18 product launches in a year. Inevitably, most of them failed. If you take a few minutes before you start building and actually architect for failure, this will not be a problem. Once you do this you can also think about how your company will decompose what you’ve built into something useful for other parts of the company. Re-use is a huge opportunity. Wayne also believed that this problem should really only happen once if you’re using post-mortems to figure out what went wrong and how to avoid it in the future.
What are your thoughts on growing your team in a distributed fashion?
Sean gave what might have been the most tactical advice of the talk: “If you are going to have a distributed team, make sure you get a 7 inch iPad mini.” Why? “Because they have the best microphones and are great for Google Hangouts”.